NEW YORK • There is something about pop culture that loves a coupling. Kim and Kanye. Brad and Angelina. Bill and Hillary. Batman and Robin.
An exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington is adding a twist to the formula, and contemplating the enduring star power of another dynamic duo: Will and Jane.
That is Jane Austen. True, she and William Shakespeare never met in person (outside the kinkier reaches of fan fiction, that is). But their parallel cultural afterlives illuminate the process by which some great authors are transformed into icons, beloved almost as much for their imagined personalities and our feelings of intimacy with them as for anything they wrote.
That, at least, is the argument made by Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, And The Cult Of Celebrity, a cheeky assemblage of the sometimes exuberantly goofy material objects that centuries of fandom have left behind.
The show, which opened last Saturday, is the first Folger exhibition to pair Shakespeare with another writer, and the first to dig deep into some of the odder artefacts - antique bellows carved with Will's face, anyone? - in its vaults, which are better known for treasures such as 82 First Folios.
They are shown alongside Austenalia sourced from all over, ranging from personal objects on loan from Jane Austen's House Museum in Hampshire, England, to modern tchotchkes more redolent of eBay.
Old-school Shakespeareans may blanch at seeing Will and Jane bobbleheads on the exhibition poster - to say nothing of the prospect of bonnet-wearing Janeites flocking to the Folger's hushed Tudor-style halls to swoon over the shirt worn (wet) by Colin Firth in his indelible turn as Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice.
But the global Austen-mania sparked by that production, the show argues, has a striking parallel in the wave of Bardolatry kicked off by the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, which created Shakespeare as a symbol of Englishness, and inspired its share of souvenir mugs and other kitschy tributes.
"Shakespeare was almost a kind of cheesy pop-culture phenomenon in the 18th century," said Ms Janine Barchas, an Austen expert at the University of Texas who curated the show with Ms Kristina Straub, a Shakespeare scholar at Carnegie Mellon University.
"When you look at how his reputation was formed and then grew," she added, "it's similar to what we're seeing with Austen now and the way that pop culture creates a foundation for high culture."
The Austen-silhouette cookie cutters in one display case may lack a patina of age. But they are not, Ms Straub said, inherently more absurd or less museum-worthy than an 18th-century mug bearing Shakespeare's portrait - or, for that matter, a bundle of wood gathered at Shakespeare's Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon reputed to be remnants of a chair he may have sat on.
"They're just sticks," she said. "But they're also being treasured in a vault. It should make you laugh, but it also tells you something about the nature of celebrity that you need to take seriously."
The exhibition was born out of an unserious conversation four years ago over a breakfast burrito. Mr Michael Witmore, Folger's director, was in Austin, Texas, for a conference and caught up with Ms Barchas, who teased him about the fact that "my author is giving your author a run for his money", as she recalled it.
After a rambling debate they hit, half-seriously, on a loose concept.
"What if these two people were lovable roommates, like Will & Grace, or Laverne & Shirley?" Mr Witmore recalled. "It really just started with the title."
The resulting show, which arrives during the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and a year ahead of the 200th anniversary of Austen's, mixes deep scholarship with serious whimsy. It does not tell a linear story but instead groups its artefacts thematically.
Even beyond sheer literary genius, the curators argue, Shakespeare and Austen have a lot in common - starting with their scantily recorded intimate lives.
One display tracks the way devotees of both authors, who were captured in only a handful of portraits, improved their images. The likeness of Austen that will appear next year on the British £10 note is based on a Victorian portrait commissioned by the family in 1869, more than 50 years after Austen's death, to prettify a sketch made by her sister, Cassandra.
Fans have also tended to prettify their love lives with embellished romances, whether a forged love letter from Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway, that was created in the 1790s, or films such as Shakespeare In Love (1998) or Becoming Jane (2007), which depicts her falling in love with a penniless lawyer.
The show also examines how both authors' names have been used in marketing, whether on a signboard for the Shakespeare's Head tavern, from the late-17th or early-18th century, or an empty shoe box from a 1970s line of women's footwear named, for obscure reasons, Jane Austen.
A display called The End? looks at the way some admirers seek communion, even in death. The curators quote a letter from the director of Jane Austen's House Museum, who in 2008 implored Janeites not to direct their heirs to scatter their ashes on the grounds.
"It is distressing for visitors," Ms Barchas noted, "to see mounds of human ash."
NEW YORK TIMES